By Adam Azzalino
May 2016 marks the 140th anniversary of the construction of one of Cedarburg’s prominent and picturesque landmarks, the covered bridge. In addition to being a historic landmark, the bridge documents a design long past. Estimates range that between 34 and 50 covered bridges were once scattered across the state. The covered bridge in Cedarburg is the sole survivor of this style.
Why bridges were covered in the late 19th century is not known. Lore and legend abound. Some say that they were covered to give shelter in storms. Others suggest that it was to provide protection from attacks by Native Americans, although this has largely been discounted by most architectural historians as myth. More likely, the covering was to protect the bridge’s structure from rain and snow.
The Cedarburg Bridge is not only unique for being the last of its kind, it is also unique in how it was erected. The lattice truss style of building bridges is rarely used in construction projects today. Three-by-ten-inch planks were webbed together and held together by two-inch pins. Three-inch planks were laid to create a floor. Sources indicate that the pine planks and lumber to construct the bridge were milled in Baraboo, Wis. At its completion, the bridge was 120 feet long and 12 feet wide. In 1927, a center abutment was added to handle the weight of cars.
The push to construct a covered bridge was a community effort. After flooding in Cedar Creek washed away several primitive bridges, nine farmers approached the Board of Supervisors of the Town of Cedarburg with a petition to build a covered bridge on May 18, 1876. Their petition proclaimed that the bridge was a “comfort for all the citizens in the north part of town…” Indeed, sources suggest that after its opening a dance was held to celebrate the new bridge, which was dubbed “The Red Bridge,” by townsfolk, as it was once painted a glossy red.
Its opening day would not be the last time the bridge was publicly recognized. In 1940, bridge maintenance was transferred to the Ozaukee County Board. As the twentieth century reached its midpoint, and covered bridges around the state began to fall into disuse and disappear, there were calls to preserve Cedarburg’s covered bridge.
The first group to recognize the bridge’s historical significance was the Port Washington chapter of the Daughters of The American Revolution (D.A.R.). On October 1, 1955, the ladies of the D.A.R., accompanied by the Port Washington High School band, dedicated a historical marker on the spot. The speaker at the dedication urged his audience to “…keep in memory those sturdy pioneers who, through patience and fortitude, finally overcame the elements and built a covered bridge which will endure for many years to come.” In 1961 an uncovered bridge was constructed west of the old covered bridge as a replacement to handle vehicle traffic. This led to the covered bridge being taken out of service in 1962. In 1965, the bridge was recognized with an official Wisconsin state marker presented by the Ozaukee County Historical Society. It read in part: “Last Covered Bridge—retired 1962.”
Jeanette Barr, the secretary of the Ozaukee County Historical Society, was one of the speakers at the dedication in 1965. Barr pondered what the future held for the covered bridge in a closing statement: “Who can guess what the scene will be at the last covered bridge in another 89 years--in the year 2054 A.D.?” The distance from that date is no longer so far-flung into the future, but little can be accurately predicted about the years ahead. As with any century, shocks and surprises and social advancements are sure to come. One thing can be said for certain, however; no matter how the future shapes the landscape—as long as the community of Cedarburg displays the same level of dedication and stewardship it has in the past—the bridge will remain a treasured part of the town.
*Originally published on the Ozaukee County Historical Society website, and reprinted with permission from the author.